Three years have now passed but Mako Vunipola’s memories of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final remain horribly clear. Things did not end well for England on the last occasion he faced a South Africa pack and the Saracens loosehead is seeking a more positive experience when he encounters the Springbok forwards again at Twickenham this Saturday.
Even the mere sight of a green jersey gives Vunipola vivid flashbacks to Yokohama, where the Springbok scrum suffocated England’s world title ambitions at source. “That game will probably stay with me for the rest of my life, not only because of how we lost but because of how they imposed themselves on us,” acknowledged the 31-year-old, one of four starting changes to the home side in the wake of the 25-25 draw with New Zealand.
The Boks, to quote Eddie Jones, “will be coming through the front door” this time as well, hence the strategic recalls for the experienced Vunipola and his club-mate Jamie George in the front row and the addition of a third lineout option in Northampton’s Alex Coles at blindside flanker. Another Saint, Tommy Freeman, is back on the wing to help England defuse the wider aerial threats presented by the world champions.
It is up front, though, where South Africa’s “Bomb Squad” most enjoy flexing their muscles and Vunipola is in no hurry to revisit the sense of post-match deflation England endured in Japan. “Sitting in the changing room afterwards was tough. If we’d played our best and they’d still beaten us, I could live with that. But the fact we didn’t fire a shot … that is probably the toughest thing to reflect on.
“Afterwards you watch it back and review it but it’s too late by then. You have to have the ability to adapt on the field. On that day we didn’t.”
South Africa will be without one or two familiar faces, with this weekend’s Test taking place outside the official November Test window, but the presence of, among others, Eben Etzebeth will still guarantee another heavy-duty encounter. “He’s very physical, confrontational and tough and he’ll keep coming all day,” Vunipola said. “We have to be ready for that. As a pack there are numerous players that can set the tone for them. It’s a great challenge. You can either walk towards them or shy away and probably never play international rugby again.”
In addition to the late confidence engendered by their dramatic three-try finish against the All Blacks, however, England believe their own forward talisman Maro Itoje is ready to give a performance that will cause even Etzebeth to stop and think.
“I think we are seeing the second coming of Maro,” suggested Jones, the head coach. “He came out like a comet, but like all good players there is a period where you stabilise. Now he is going up again – we will see the best of Maro on Saturday.
“At his best, he is the best defensive player in the world and we want to see more of that. There was a certain American basketballer, Kobe Bryant, whose focus was on being the best defensive player. Maro has that in him.”
Vunipola, who has played alongside Itoje for years, also feels his teammate is still improving. “There are times where maybe he’s over thought things and tried to solve everything by himself but that’s just the growing pains of a young player. He’s now a massive leader for us … he’s the one who leads the physicality in the forwards.”
With Ellis Genge, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell all poised to come off the bench, there is clear potential for England to finish strongly again if they can stand firm early on. Jack van Poortvliet has rightly been backed at scrum-half despite a difficult game against the All Blacks while Manu Tuilagi is set to win his 50th cap.